Every now and then an old favorite is worth re-visiting.
By Mahmoud H., Fredericton High School, Fredericton, NB
Things Fall Apart: Book Review
by Chinua Achebe
Anchor Books, $9.95, 209 pages
Only in Things Fall Apart does a man kill his beloved adopted son in order to show his tribe that he is not "afraid of blood".
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a novel about how the religious and cultural values of the tribes of the Lower Niger were overturned by the white missionaries. This uniquely African book which was first published in 1959 has been compared to the Greek tragedies because it deals with the universal problems of pride and destiny. Things Fall Apart has been translated into fifty different languages. It is easy to see how this novel continues to sell millions of copies worldwide.
Okonkwo, the central character in the novel is a warrior who has risen to wealth and eminence through his own hard work. The objective of Okonkwo's life is to be entirely the opposite of his father of whom he is deeply ashamed. This is because Okonkwo's father was an effeminate, sensitive man who died in debt and dishonour.
Many incidents show Okonkwo's wrong interpretation of courage and manliness. The most heartbreaking event in this violent book is Okonkwo's decision to personally participate in the killing of a youth named Ikemefuna. Okonkwo had been made the guardian of this boy by the village elders. Over the three years that Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo's household, he had grown to love and be loved by Okonkwo's eldest son, Nwoye. Ikemefuna called Okonwo "father," and he and Nwoye were like real brothers. Okonkwo, in turn, was very proud of Ikemefuna.
When the village elders decided that Ikemefuna should, on the advice of the Oracle, be killed, Okonkwo would not even consider going against them. Throughout the novel, Okonkwo denies his feminine side by choosing to be harsh, rather than passionate. He follows the tribal rules because he lacks the conviction to stand up for what he knows to be right. It is Okonkwo who deals the death blow to Ikemefuna because he does not want to be seen as "afraid of blood."
Through these characters, the author provides many insights on life. It is while Okonkwo is in exile at his mother's village that he receives very strong advice from his uncle: "It's true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is here to protect you."
Chinua Achebe has been considered by the London Sunday Times to be one of "the makers of the Twentieth Century." He has been accredited with defining African literature, thus making a major contribution to world literature. Chinua Achebe expresses his ideas through novels, short stories, poems, essays and children's books. He was a joint winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for his volume of poetry entitled Christmas in Biafra, written during the Biafran War. Chinua Achebe holds an Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy as well as more than twenty honorary doctorates from universities in England, Canada, US, Scotland and Nigeria. He has been mentioned as one of the most likely candidates for a Nobel Prize in Literature.
The poem by W.B. Yeats (The Second Coming) which inspired the title of this book is very impressive because it shows that the flaws in the tribal cultures are the reason for the breakdown of this society. And yet, it is obvious that there was much of value in the old ways, because the reader is deeply saddened by the passing of the traditional lifestyle. There is no easy, simple explanation for the many facets of this novel.
I found this book difficult to follow because the customs described were so foreign to anything I know. The glossary at the end of the book was most helpful in making sense of the African words that were basic to an understanding of what was happening. I know most people would be very put off by the content of this novel.
Other than Okonkwo, the characters are not well-developed in this novel. However, that hardly matters; the terrifying drama of the story is gripping enough. I agree with the dust cover description of this book as being written with "remarkable economy and subtle irony."
Things Fall Apart is challenging but extremely rewarding reading. Even an ambitious reader would need to read this novel two or three times to feel completely familiar with the real significance of the various characters. What I do know is that at the end of my first reading of this novel, I was deeply disturbed by the injustice and tragedy of the collapse of this vibrant culture. I look forward to rereading this book because I feel drawn to the depth and darkness hidden in a seemingly simple story.
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